Alzheimer's Facts: Everything You Need To Know

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated January 27, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

As people age, they often worry more about their health. This includes both physical and mental functioning, which can each be affected to varying degrees according to one’s age, medical history, and lifestyle choices. While most people experience some decline in memory and cognition as they age, others develop dementia or Alzheimer's disease and struggle more as a result. Though Alzheimer’s disease is common, there are still misconceptions about how it can develop and what it can be like to have it. This article outlines ten essential facts about Alzheimer’s that can help you recognize and understand this disease more clearly.

1. Alzheimer's Disease Is Just One Cause Of Memory Decline

When experiencing significant memory declines later in life, many people may jump to conclusions, thinking that they have Alzheimer's disease. However, there are other disorders that can also cause problems with memory to be aware of. For example, vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, and frontotemporal dementia are all other types of dementia associated with memory problems. Thyroid problems, low blood sugar, infection, and even depression can also cause memory problems that may remit with treatment.

2. The Number Of People With Alzheimer's Disease Is Increasing

Statistics indicate that an estimated 6 million Americans have this condition. At the current rates of diagnosis, it is believed that this number will continue to rise, likely reaching approximately 14 million Americans by the year 2050. Most people are diagnosed after age 65. However, approximately 200,000 Americans develop early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

Alzheimer's disease is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States.

The condition itself does not directly cause death. However, related health problems often occur, which can lead to death. Additionally, declines in the ability to provide care to oneself independently also contribute to death rates, which increase each year.

Alzheimer's statistics also reveal that 16.1 million people in America help provide care to people with this condition or some other form of dementia. These caregivers often go unpaid for this work. In many cases, they are family or friends, who take on the task of caring for their loved one. All that caregiving can add up. Across the nation, caregivers gave approximately 18.4 billion hours of care. If that care were paid for, it would cost approximately $232 billion dollars. In general, the treatment and care for Alzheimer’s are costly, and those costs continue to rise over time.

3. Alzheimer's Disease Affects More Than Memory

Alzheimer’s disease is perhaps most associated with memory problems. Indeed, declines in memory are one of the first symptoms to appear and one of the primary features of the disorder. However, there are other changes in cognitive functioning that also occur. Someone with Alzheimer's may have difficulty focusing and become easily confused. They might become more easily frustrated, have mood swings, and even show other mental health symptoms like anxiety and depression. There also may be some physical problems such as loss of coordination.

4. Alzheimer's Disease Progresses Through Stages

Alzheimer's symptoms usually start mildly and progress over time to become increasingly severe, which is why the disease has been divided into stages. In the early stages, the most noticeable problem is often memory problems, such as forgetting information or losing items. As the decline continues, more cognitive problems appear. It may become increasingly difficult for the person to plan, organize, and remember important dates or information. Over time, activities such as talking and calculating solutions to math problems can become more difficult. Eventually, someone with Alzheimer's can lose the ability to care for themselves.

5. A Combination Of Factors Can Increase The Risk Of Alzheimer's

Doctors are not entirely sure about all the factors that might cause a person to develop Alzheimer's disease. The disorder seems to be the result of a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Research has shown that when there is a family history of Alzheimer's, there is a greater likelihood of developing the condition. It seems that certain genetic mutations may cause this. Certain life events may also increase the risk.

Research shows that a head injury earlier in life is linked to an increased likelihood of developing Alzheimer's. Certain health conditions such as high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease are also linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer's.

6. Alzheimer's Is Due To Neuron Damage From Two Processes

Although the initial causes of Alzheimer's Disease are complex and unclear, researchers have learned about the neurological processes that malfunction and can lead to Alzheimer's symptoms. One such process is when twisted strands of the protein tau start to unravel. They form neurofibrillary tangles. Not only are these structures disruptive, but the tau being out of place means that nutrients cannot be properly transported to the nerve cells. Without those nutrients, the nerve cells eventually die.

Additionally, protein fragments called beta-amyloid start to build clusters called plaques between the nerve cells. The plaques block signaling between the brain's nerve cells, which means they cannot communicate.

7. Alzheimer's Disease Usually Starts In The Hippocampus

Research has found that the brain is comprised of many parts that each control various functions or contribute to different capabilities. The limbic system, which works with emotion, seems to also play a big role in memory. Even within this system, the hippocampus is the specific part of the brain that moves information into long-term memory. Research through brain scans shows that the damage associated with the tangles and plaques usually starts near the hippocampus and then spreads elsewhere throughout the brain. That is why the earliest symptom of Alzheimer’s tends to be memory loss.

8. Alzheimer's Disease Can Be Difficult To Diagnose

When dementia or Alzheimer's is suspected, a doctor will order many assessments and evaluations to determine the diagnosis. However, there is no definitive way to diagnose Alzheimer's Disease. Instead, doctors rule out other possible conditions, diagnosing Alzheimer’s only when no other condition could possibly be causing the symptoms. This allows the individual to start receiving treatment. After death, the diagnosis can be officially confirmed. This is done as part of an autopsy in which slices of the brain are examined under a microscope for the presence of tangles and plaques.

9. Alzheimer's Disease Can Be Treated But Cannot Be Cured

Alzheimer's is a progressive disorder that worsens over time and has no known cure. There is no way to slow the progression of the disease once it starts because the tangles and plaques continue to form. Science has not yet found a solution; however, different treatments can help slow the progression of symptoms. Various forms of medication act on the brain and its neurotransmitters, helping people maintain independence and quality of life. Always speak with a medical provider before taking a new medication. 

Researchers continue to look for medical treatments. For example, research on statins and Alzheimer's has shown mixed findings. It is thought that these may be helpful because they reduce cardiovascular disease and indeed, they seem most helpful for vascular dementia. It is unclear whether this treatment will be consistently helpful for those with Alzheimer's. In some cases, it worsens confusion and cognitive problems, but scientists continue investigating the potential benefits.

10. Alzheimer's Disease May Be Preventable

There is no guaranteed way to prevent Alzheimer's disease. However, there are ways to reduce the risk of developing the disorder. Research has shown that physical activity is helpful because it promotes blood flow and prevents other health conditions that could increase the risk of developing the disease. Eating a healthy, nutritious diet is similarly beneficial. Sleep is known to help promote and maintain cognitive functioning, including memory. Drinking in moderation and avoiding smoking are also recommended. Keeping the mind active, staying social, and taking care of one's mental health are also important steps. Finally, adequate medical care is essential.

Online Therapy With BetterHelp

Normal aging can be difficult to adjust to. Coping with the symptoms of severe memory loss or other significant changes can be even more challenging. Trained therapists can help those with Alzheimer's disease and their caregivers manage the physical, cognitive, psychological, and emotional changes that occur with the disorder. Suppose you are struggling with adjusting to age, dealing with a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease, or are in a caregiving role. In that case, you can seek out therapy locally and online counseling through the BetterHelp platform. 

Taking care of someone with Alzheimer’s may mean you must be with them often. This can make it difficult to care for yourself, including your mental health. Online therapy makes it more convenient to get the therapeutic support you need. You can connect through video calls, phone calls, or an in-app messaging feature all from the comfort of your home. 

The Effectiveness Of Online Therapy

Many people use therapy to manage the grief, depression, and anxiety that can come along with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Often, caregivers can also benefit from the support of counseling. One study assessed the effectiveness of a telehealth behavioral coaching intervention for caregivers of those with neurocognitive disorders, such as dementia. Researchers found that caregivers experienced lower depressive symptoms, less upset following disruptive behaviors, and more positive mood states overall. Caregivers also reported higher self-efficacy in their abilities to provide support. 

Takeaway

Declining physical and cognitive functioning is a natural part of the aging process. However, if those changes are severe and affect your ability to function, it may indicate a more serious disorder such as dementia or Alzheimer's disease. With these interesting facts about Alzheimer's, you can be more attuned to the symptoms you or a loved one has and seek medical support when needed. If you receive confirmation of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, confiding in an online therapist may help you stay more mentally healthy throughout the treatment and caregiving processes. 

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